Who Invented Scalping?


The second theme of these descriptions is that scalping was surrounded by a number of rituals and customs that could hardly have been borrowed from the freebooting European traders and fishermen who may have preceded the earliest authors. The elaborate preparation of the scalps by drying, stretching on hoops, painting, and decorating; scalp yells when a scalp was taken and later when it was borne home on raised spears or poles; occasional nude female custodianship of the prizes; scalp dances and body decorations; scalps as nonremunerative trophies of war to be publicly displayed on canoes, cabins, and palisades; and the substitution of a scalp for a living captive to be adopted in the place of a deceased member of the family—all these appear too ritualized and too widespread throughout eastern America to have been recent introductions by Europeans.

The final characteristic of the early accounts is an obvious search for words to describe scalping to a European audience. The older English word scalp did not acquire its distinctly American meaning until 1675 when King Philip’s War brought the object renewed prominence in New England. Until then, the best expressions were compounds such as “hair-scalp” and “head-skin,” phrases such as “the skin and hair of the scalp of the head,” or the simple but ambiguous word “head.” Likewise, the only meaning of the verb to scalp meant “to carve, engrave, scrape, or scratch.” Consequently, English writers were forced to use “skin,” “flay,” or “excoriate” until 1676 when the American meaning became popular. French, Dutch, German, and Swedish speakers were also forced to resort to circumlocutions until they borrowed the English words in the eighteenth century.

On the other hand, the languages of the eastern Indians contained many words to describe the scalp, the act of scalping, and the victim of scalping. A Catholic priest among the Hurons in 1623 learned that an onontsira was a war trophy consisting of “the skin of the head with its hair.” The five languages of the Iroquois were especially rich in words to describe the act that has earned them, however unjustly, an enduring reputation for inhuman ferocity. To the Mohawks and Oneidas, the scalp was onnonra ; the act of taking it, kannonrackwan . Their western brothers at Onondaga spoke of hononksera , a variation of the Huron word. And although they were recorded after initial contact with the Europeans, the vocabularies of the other Iroquois nations and of the Delaware, Algonquin, Malecite, Micmac, and Montagnais all contained words for scalp, scalping, and the scalped that are closely related to the native words for hair, head, skull, and skin. That these words were obviously not borrowed from European languages lends further support to the notion that they were native to America and deeply rooted in Indian life.


Understandably, words have done the most to fix the image of Indian scalping on the historical record, but paintings and drawings reinforce that image. The single most important picture in this regard is Theodore de Bry’s engraving of Le Moyne’s drawing of “How Outina’s Men Treated the Enemy Dead.” Based on Le Moyne’s observations in 1564-65, the 1591 engraving was the first pictorial representation of Indian scalping, one faithful to Le Moyne’s verbal description and to subsequent accounts from other regions of eastern America. The details—sharp reeds to extract the scalp, drying the green skin over a fire, displaying the trophies on long poles, and later celebrating the victory with established rituals by the sorcerer—lend authenticity to De Bry’s rendering and support to the argument for the Indian invention of scalping.

Drawings reveal yet another piece of evidence damaging to the new theory of scalping, namely scalp locks. A small braid of hair on the crown, often decorated with paint or jewelry, the scalp lock was worn widely in both eastern and western America. Contrary to the notion of scalping as a recent and mercenary introduction, the scalp lock originally possessed ancient religious meaning in most tribes, symbolizing the warrior’s life-force. For anyone to touch it even lightly was regarded as a grave insult. If the white man had taught the Indians to scalp one another for money, it is highly unlikely that the Indians were also hoodwinked into making it easier for their enemies by growing hairy handles. Something far deeper in native culture and history must account for the practice.

The final and most conclusive evidence of scalping in pre-Columbian America comes from archaeology. Since Indian skulls of the requisite age can be found to show distinct and unambiguous marks made by the scalping knife, the Indians must have known of scalping before the arrival of the white man. A wealth of evidence, particularly from prehistoric sites along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and in the Southeast, indicates just such a conclusion.